November 14, 2019
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Immigrants may be hit hardest by MaineCare cuts, tighter food stamp rules

AUGUSTA, Maine — Changes in the state budget approved last spring and now in effect include cutting MaineCare coverage for hundreds, stopping food stamps for some and, in two weeks, telling 2,500 people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: Your time’s up.

Also coming soon: new rules that end TANF benefits for some immigrants and a measure to drug-screen TANF recipients with drug-related felonies dating back to 1996.

With three of the five changes affecting legal noncitizens who have been in the U.S. fewer than five years, one advocate said Portland and Lewiston will be hardest hit.

The changes are expected to save the state more than $4 million per year, according to a Department of Health and Human Services spokesman.

They trace back to the budget proposed by Gov. Paul LePage and approved by the state Legislature in June.

“What was originally proposed actually would have cut a lot more than what was ultimately passed, but the cuts that did pass are still going to harm — and already have harmed — a number of people in our state,” said Robyn Merrill, a policy analyst with Maine Equal Justice Partners.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “I feel like, just in talking with people, there are a lot of people who aren’t aware these changes were made.”

The cuts:

• The first came in September when about 500 legal noncitizens who had been in the country fewer than five years received letters telling them MaineCare coverage was about to end.

Bethany Hamm, division director for DHHS policy and programs, said coverage wasn’t pulled for pregnant women or children under age 21.

“Predominantly, they’re adult males who don’t have children,” she said.

Merrill said exceptions were made for refugees and those granted asylum, both covered under federal programs.

“The two big groups that were impacted . . . [are] people with an application pending for asylum and also people who are lawful, permanent residents but they aren’t refugees and they aren’t asylees,” she said. “They often have come to be with family or they have come for a job, but they have a green card and now there’s a five-year waiting period for those folks before they qualify for MaineCare.”

Projected annual savings to the state, according to DHHS spokesman John Martins: $2.55 million.

• On Jan. 1, the state stopped taking applications for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps, from legal noncitizens who have been in the country fewer than five years. Exceptions include domestic violence survivors, the disabled and the elderly. The 636 people receiving benefits before Jan. 1 who would have been affected are grandfathered in, Martins said.

Projected annual savings to the state: $80,000.

• About 14,000 people in Maine receive TANF benefits, and of those, 2,500 have received benefits for 60 months or more. The latter will receive notice the third week of January that their eligibility is coming to an end.

By state statute, Martins said, they’ll receive benefits for another 120 days and can appeal for a “good cause” exemption.

Merrill said her group commissioned a study on TANF recipients and found among those families receiving benefits for 60 months or more, “almost 90 percent of them have a disability in the family, either the parent has a work-limiting disability or the child has a disability.”

“At least, the law does say if there’s a disability there, people should qualify for an extension,” she said.

Projected savings to the state: $1.25 million in fiscal 2012; $500,000 in fiscal 2013.

• A change on the horizon: limiting TANF benefits to legal noncitizens who have been in the country fewer than five years. The 140 people already receiving benefits who would have been affected will be grandfathered in, Martins said.

Projected annual savings to the state: $100,000.

• In the rule-making process: drug-screening TANF recipients who have drug-related felonies dating back to August 1996.

“We need to get a handle on the number and who they are,” Michael Frey, deputy director of the DHHS office for family independence, said in a November interview.

DHHS was working with the Maine Department of Public Safety to cross-check names.

Merrill said the fallout from a positive screen has softened from what LePage originally proposed.

“If somebody tested positive, the family would be terminated from assistance, end of story,” she said. “What ended up passing, a compromise of sorts, the person may have to submit to a drug test in order to continue getting assistance, but they could request a fair hearing if they disputed the findings of that result. If they continue to test positive for illegal drug use, they could be required, in order to get assistance, to get into a substance-abuse treatment program.”

The rules aren’t in yet; she’s hoping to see a requirement that a “reasonable, current suspicion that there’s substance abuse” triggers testing.

Projected annual savings to the state: $50,000.

Hamm said MaineCare, SNAP and TANF for legal noncitizens in the country for fewer than five years had been covered by the federal government until the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act in 1996. That next year, and the years since, Maine opted to pick up the tab, she said.

Until now.

The process of adopting the new policies directed by the budget has worked slowly through the department this fall.

“There’s two sides to the issue — some strong feelings on both sides,” Frey said. “Any changes that have an impact on people are big changes.”


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